Southern Pines has a long history of downtown visitor lodging. First, they were “boarding houses.”
Prospect House, built in 1886, offered rooms to prospective settlers in the fledgling Southern Pines. One visitor termed it “one of the most cozy hotels it has been our good fortune to encounter.”
The Vermont House, on Bennett Street, came in 1897, also as a boarding house for visitors from Vermont. Oak Hall, built in 1890, became the Ozone Hotel and, later, the Southland.
The Piney Woods Inn, built in 1895 between Indiana and Massachusetts avenues, offered elegant lodging for 250 guests and provided its own in-house orchestra.
Perhaps the swankiest accommodations, from 1912 to 1957, could be found at Highland Pines Resort just east of downtown in Weymouth Heights.
By 1914, the town had 10 hotels, five of them east of the train tracks. Virtually all have been lost to time. The Jefferson Inn, quite the niche lodging these past 120 years, remains but offers just 15 guest rooms.
Now, a new developer has put forward plans for a significantly larger hotel — more than 90 rooms — at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Bennett Street.
Is Southern Pines’ history also its future? Or is the town too far down a new path to accommodate these accommodations?
Not Very Palatable
An investment concern calling itself Southern Pines Ventures LLC hired a Wilmington-based developer to drive this new hotel project. Because of its location in the town’s central business district, a hotel is a permitted use on the site; no rezoning is needed. The only real issue needing town approval, then, is its appearance, because the site is also in the town’s Historic District.
As presented to the Southern Pines Historic District Commission earlier this month, the hotel project is akin to the Hilton Garden Inn developed a couple of years ago in Aberdeen. Its size is similar, as is its outer appearance.
It’s that last point that left commission members — and us — flummoxed. For the extensive record of this town’s rich architectural history, the proposed hotel was rather bland.
“The size of this building is more appropriate for a highway cloverleaf,” said Robert Anderson, a local architect and commission member. “It looks an awful lot like Moore Regional Hospital.
“This isn’t just a set of working drawings,” he said. “This is presenting to the world to demonstrate what it is you’re trying to convey to the town. We’re not getting much of an idea here.”
Gale Wallace, representing the Wilmington developer, acknowledged the hotel would be part of the Hilton chain, but said it would be part of its “tapestry collection” of boutique-like hotels. She said it would be customized to reflect the town, much like the Hotel Florence is to Florence, South Carolina.
And yet, Commission Chairwoman Leslie Brians didn’t see that reflection.
“There’s a whole inventory of historic inns and hotels that are no longer in Southern Pines that you can use as inspiration,” Brians said. “That’s something that would … make things a little bit more palatable with the guidelines.”
The Right Fit
The commission can’t stop the development project, but it can delay it, and it did so for three months. The developer may have gotten the hint because Wallace suggested the plan might get reworked based on the feedback.
A hotel certainly is an acceptable use for a central business district, but one of such scale — 92 rooms and parking for more than 60 cars — feels large for a corner bordered by a side street and a narrow two-lane thoroughfare. That stretch of Bennett Street, already home to a few small businesses, offices, a church and condos, can get congested. Coupled with other projects planned or underway nearby, the town could be setting itself up for a considerable growth backlash if it’s not careful.
Downtown lodging is our history. At a suitable scale and design, it can be again.